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Mystification, Madness, and a Movie for Our Times

Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen – and intend to see – Denis Villeneuve’s movie Dune Part 2, read this after you’ve seen it.

Although a new science fiction film, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 2, may not seem an obvious source for moral reflection in the African context, I think the film speaks to our times – both in Africa and elsewhere. After all, the underlying themes of the film, namely populist political fanaticism, the manipulation of culture, and the use of religion for personal gain are all too familiar to us.

I have long been a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. This enjoyment goes beyond that of a devotee of Science Fiction, but based on a long held sense that Dune offers us a thorough critique of the use and misuse of religion for political ends – and as a warning against people putting blind faith in messiah figures.[1]  Which makes this a useful source for ethical reflection.

Villeneuve’s film [final spoiler alert!]  follows Herbert’s novel faithfully, despite introducing a number of differences to the story – differences that in fact highlight Herbert’s own strong warning against messianism. Many thousands of years in the future, the known universe is run on neo-feudal lines, presided over by an Emperor, influenced by a group of ‘nuns’, the Bene Gesserit, whose main task is manipulating royal bloodlines and seeding religious beliefs among the masses, all in their interests. Computers are banned and space travel that connects the feudal planets is conducted through the use of a spice found on only one desert planet, Arrakis.  As Dune 2 begins, the main character[2] Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica (who is a Bene Gesserit), survivors of the destruction of their ducal house by a rival family, find refuge on Arrakis with its local inhabitants, the Fremen. Many of the Fremen, nomads akin to the Bedouin of Earth, believe that a messiah figure will come from ‘outside’ to free them from imperial oppression. Unknown to them, but known to Paul and Jessica, this is an idea seeded by the Bene Gesserit.

Paul starts out conflicted over his role. Should he simply embrace the Fremen way, settle down with his Fremen lover Chani, and work with them for their freedom? Or should he use this legend to advance his interests, to destroy his enemies and seize the imperial throne. In the film version, there are Fremen who don’t believe the legend (including Chani). In addition, the movie depicts Jessica actively encouraging  the Fremen to link the legendary messiah with her son – who himself has considerable psychic powers that she has instilled in him.[3] The plan is not simply to free Arrakis but to seize imperial power. Paul falls in with his mother’s plan, using the Fremen fighters (the fedaykin[4]), to defeat his enemies and overthrow the Emperor. As the film ends, the other noble houses refuse to acknowledge him (another change from the novel) and Paul calls on his Fremen fighters to “Send them to Paradise!”. And the Fremen forces joyfully board space ships to embark on what will become a massive jihad (the term is used in the books, skirted around in the films) that will kill billions.

Having tried to sum up an extremely complex narrative as briefly as possible,[5] let me pose the questions: What has this to do with our day? What are the moral questions we need to ask?

The late Frank Herbert always warned against messianic figures, suggesting that they should come with a health warning. Herbert believed that people should think for themselves before being led by half-baked and often, on closer examination, impossible promises of this-worldly salvation. Unfortunately, we see this everywhere, at almost every level from local to global. Just a few examples might suffice. We hear dozens of pastors and prophets declaring to their followers that they can do everything from guarantee them material prosperity to raise the dead – at the price, of course, of large amounts of money and blind faith.[6] We see in advanced countries the rise and rise of an apparently theologically inspired Christian Nationalism,[7] a nationalism that in some places calls insurrectionists patriots, and Christian exemplars. We hear rhetoric of political leaders as national saviors, saving the good Christian people from the terrors of secularism, abortion, transgenderism and other ‘perversions,’ while promising strong government (even perhaps dictatorship for a day!). Or even simply conning people into thinking that without them society would decline into chaos.

In Villeneuve’s Dune, Paul makes his final choice: he chooses to let his new community believe in a myth about him, he manipulates them into fighting his war for him, and then drives them into a final genocidal war. He may be sending his rivals to “Paradise”; but he’s turned honorable people into murderers and fanatics. And, following a certain reading, he’s placed himself in the very opposite of paradise!

I think that as ethicists, we need to carefully explore popular culture like films. Popular culture tells us a lot about the world we live in – including a world that those who work within the Church may miss. Or indeed the world that pervades the Church without us seeing it, perhaps because we don’t want to see the shadowy side of our institutions. The choices we make define us. Do we rush headlong into a holy war (or theocratic dictatorship), at the behest of a messianic pretender, or do we exercise our critical judgment, analyze what is really happening, what can actually be done, and make a prudent judgment on what we should do?

And as Christian ethicists in particular we should always judge the claims of political messiahs against those of another who emerged from a desert, Jesus of Nazareth. I echo what I said in an earlier essay on Dune: “A Christian reading of Paul Atreides can only reveal to us the terrible power of self-absorption and the self-delusion of absolute power. Christians are called to model themselves on Christ. They are called to be reflective and to, in the language of virtue ethics, to cultivate habits and practices that reflect their deepest sense of self. While we fail all the time, Christian virtue ethics has its eyes firmly set on Christ as the model and archetype of what it is to be truly human and thus truly divine. Such holy humanity has no need for ‘magical’ powers.”

[1]  See my article “Savage Messianism and Political Mysticism: What the Dune Novels Might say to Contemporary Faith”, Grace & Truth, Vol. 30, No.1, April 2013, 38-45.

[2]  For reasons I shall explain, he is not a hero – maybe at best a tragic anti-hero.

[3]  These powers are consolidated when Paul undergoes a poison test. What is unclear is whether we are to believe these are supernatural or natural powers. Based on Herbert’s own skepticism, I think we are supposed not to believe they are magical, but natural.

[4]  For those familiar with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, this should be a familiar term: Fedayeen was a common term for PLO guerillas in the 1970s.

[5]  Unsuccessfully, I fear.

[6]  See, for example: M. S. Kgatle, J. S. Thinane & C.J. Kaunda (eds.), Commercialisation of Religion in South Africa (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023); Yong-Bock Kim, “Messianic Politics: Toward a New Political Paradigm”, The Christian Century, July 15-22, 1987, 628-630.

[7]  See, for example:  Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).